For tasks requiring intelligence and independent judgement, for the kind of job where one would ordinarily employ a contractor or high level free employee, slave owners generally gave one of their best slaves an incentive environment approximating that of a high level free employee, where the slave had a future career path, the opportunity to save and invest, to own money and buy assets, including buying other slaves, indicating that slavery does not work to get such tasks done – hence the failure of the Soviet Union.
However for many tasks, tasks suitable to stupid people, tasks for bad people, tasks where you want people to reliably do as they are told rather than make good decisions, the sort of tasks that most black people are suitable for, slavery was markedly more productive and efficient than free labor, with the slave producing more value for himself and his owner with less labor, than he did when freed.
When the slaves were freed, they became for the most part, considerably worse off economically, having to work harder and getting less to eat.
Twarn’t long atter dat dey tell us we’se free. But lawdy, Cap’n, we ain’t nebber been what I calls free. ‘Cose ole marster didn’ own us no mo’, an’ all de folks soon scatter all ober, but iffen dey all lak me day still hafter wuk jes’ as hard, an some times hab less dan we useter hab when we stay on Marster John’s plantation.
Freedom is all right, but de niggers was better off befo’ surrender, kaze den dey was looked after an’ dey didn’ get in no trouble fightin’ an’ killin’ like dey do dese days. If a nigger cut up an’ got sassy in slavery times, his Ole Marse give him a good whippin’ an’ he went way back an’ set down an’ ‘haved hese’f. If he was sick, Marse an’ Mistis looked after him, an’ if he needed store medicine, it was bought an’ give to him; he didn’ have to pay nothin’. Dey didn’ even have to think ’bout clothes nor nothin’ like dat, dey was wove an’ made an’ give to dem. Maybe everybody’s Marse and Mistis wuzn’ good as Marse George and Mis’ Betsy, but dey was de same as a mammy an’ pappy to us niggers.
Economists find this outcome most strange, but there is no mystery to it. When stupid people, prone to short time horizons, get to make their own decisions for themselves, they are apt to make stupid decisions.
A slave maid could not steal the silverware, because she could not own anything. An employed maid could steal the silverware, and probably would, and would be the worse off for it. An employed maid might well beat the baby with stick as thick as her arm because her mistress spoke sharply to her. A slave maid would not, because her mistress could do worse.
If masters and slaves were better off than employers and employees, an economist would ask, why could they not just cut a deal to do what they previously did, only without chains and beatings, do the same tasks in the same way, only as employees?
The answer to that question is: that the former slaves, once freed, could not credibly commit to stick to such a deal, and generally did not stick to such a deal, thus economically worse off. Stupid people, prone to violence, with short time horizons, needed masters.